words by jack jones Such is the sensitive nature of child abuse and paedophilia, one has to really question the desire to view a film that divulges the inner routines and horrors of such heinous crimes. Recent history has many examples of almost unimaginable atrocities, notably the arrest of Josef Fritzl who imprisoned his daughter and repeatedly abused her over a period of 24 years, and Natascha Kampusch who was similarly kidnapped and kept in a cellar for more than 8 years until she escaped in 2006, have both occured in Austria. It comes as no surprise that Michael has some obvious connotations to these particular cases. Set in Austria and featuring a captor of a young boy in a sound proofed basement, Markus Schleinzerâ€˜s debut film is a clinical, almost scientifically dissected, study of a fictional coercion.
The title character, Michael, is presented as a placid and reserved figure, and is someone who is as plain and boring as his beige jumpers and Ikea furniture. He is a stark contrast to the charismatic and ultimately entertaining monsters in films such as David Fincher’s Se7en or Michael Mann’s Manhunter. Schleinzer favours for a more calculated approach and frustratingly banal exposé of Michael and the boy’s routines. And even though the situation is itself fictional,
“he (Michael) is as plain and boring as his beige jumpers and ikea furniture”
the unspectacular atmosphere projects an almost factuality of the events in a manner that are all the more disturbing and uncomfortable. In fact, the ‘every day’ ordinariness of Michael is perhaps what is so frightening because it paints a reality without any disguise or smoke screen. Much like Michael Haneke’s original and US versions of Funny Games, Michael persists in asking questions of the viewer. Schleinzer deliberately takes a nonjudgmental approach and avoids any
explicit ideals he may personally hold, thus exposing the audience to their own thoughts and feelings towards the subject. It comes as no surprise therefore to find that Schleinzer has previously worked with Haneke as a casting director on three of his films and referenced him as an influence in the closing credits. In style Schleinzer has certainly inherited Haneke’s interest in the banality of evil but also his eye for chilling cinematography and cinematic spaces. And as a debut, you’ll be hard pressed to find one as bold as this.
â€œMichael is so utterly terrifying because of the way in which it avoids any preconceived notion of redemption or catharsis for the audience to feel safe or indulge inâ€?
Much of what works in Michael is down to the unbearable tension that Schleizner manages to create through seemingly inanimate sequences. Michael may be a thriller but don’t expect to be suddenly thrown into a rubber burning car chase or bone crunching fight scene. Michael is all mood and suggestion, leaving blank spaces to be filled and fulfilled. Apart from the occassional shock, Michael is almost completely absent of anything explicit. Yet, the film remains so wholly terrifying. This is perhaps a consequence of a public consciousness when it comes to child abuse, that we automatically fill in the gaps that Michael leaves. But it is also a result of the overall mood of the film that leaves you on edge. The opening sequence of Michael’s routine is superbly crafted, symbolising not only the boy’s imprisonment but also his captors. By conceiling the crime, Michael is in his own existence a trapped and impoverished being. Little is drawn out about Michael’s background or what makes him the way he is, and Schleizner momentarilly serves up some all too obvious signposts of what a paedophile might be defined as. Yes, Michael is reclusive and socially inept, even at times a repressed childlike behaviour makes
him seem mentally immature, but wouldn’t it have been more frightening if he had been someone that doesn’t a what seems to have become a very typical and predetermined profile? One doesn’t doubt Schleizner’s research, but perhaps by playing it so accurately and examinatory he has missed an opportunity to offer something we haven’t seen before. The only other noticeable mis-step the film makes is its misjudged use of Boney M’s cover of ‘Sunny’. First we see Michael humming the tune whilst in his car alone and as the credits roll the same music is played out in an ironic and ultimately insensitive manner. Up until this point Michael is superb in its icy cold and blank depiction of evil, was this sudden playfulness necessary? If Schleizner had planned for something so crude, why not use Boney M’s ‘Daddy Cool’? Perhaps that would have been too innapropriate? Nevertheless, the situation in Michael is so utterly terrifying because of the way in which it avoids any preconceived notion of redemption or catharsis for the audience to feel safe or indulge in. And by achieving an enduring feeling of terror Michael is masterful. Both Michael Fuith and young actor David Rauchenberger are superb as one of the most magnetic yet uncomfortable screen duos imaginable. If you come out feeling disturbed and terrified by Michael, assume that the film has worked as this is not an obviously enjoyable experience. Michael is in cinemas 2 March